U.S. Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific and Union Pacific

The ceremonial last spike on the Central and Union Pacific Railroads

U.S. Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific and Union Pacific

Railroad workers completing the U.S. transcontinental railroad
Railroad workers completing the U.S. transcontinental railroad

The Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States were linked by transcontinental railroad after the end of the American Civil War.

Completed in 1869, the railroad linked Iowa with San Francisco. It was completed by three railroad companies, the two best known being Central Pacific and Union Pacific.

Although it linked California with the eastern states, its primary purpose wasn’t travel, it was economic.

Facts About the Railroad

The ceremonial last spike on the Central and Union Pacific Railroads
The ceremonial last spike on the Central and Union Pacific Railroads

Construction Begins: 1863

Mileage Covered: 1,907 over Nebraska, Wyoming Territory, Utah Territory and California.

Demographics: Up to 80 percent of the workforce was Chinese. Other workers were former soldiers, and Mormons, among others.

During Construction: The railroad cut through land occupied by Native Americans. Treaties took land away from the natives and made it public domain. Much of this new public domain land was used for the rail lines. Attacks by Native American tribes were common.

Towns that sprung up around the newly constructed lines were rough, crime ridden places nicknamed “hell on wheels.”

Union Pacific investor Thomas Durant manipulated the rail routes and made a fortune through illegal means.

Cost: Funded mostly by investors.

Construction Completed: May 10, 1869, two days behind schedule.

“This delay causes great disappointment here and in Sacramento, every preparation being completed to celebrate the event to-morrow in a befitting manner,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said.  “Heavy rain storms have interfered with the work, causing considerable damage to the track and bridges in the neighborhood of Eicho City and Ogden.”

Last Spike: Promontory Point, Utah.

Legacy: Millions of dollars worth of goods were transported cross country by the 1880s. Travel that once took half a year was cut down to under a week.

The 2011-2016 AMC series Hell on Wheels took place during the building of the railroad.

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Updated:  20 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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